Flotilla Activists Hope to Bring Aid to Gaza — Or Spark a ‘Political Crisis’

Activists are planning to lead a flotilla of ships to Gaza, amid Israel’s ongoing siege. They’ll transport 5,500 tons of desperately needed food and supplies from Istanbul to the Palestinian territory, where famine looms.

The activists don’t necessarily expect to make it there. They hope they do. But in the event that Israel blocks them, boards them, and detains them — or worse — they hope their efforts will inspire international outcry and put more pressure on Israel to end its war in Gaza and blockade around the territory.

“Obviously, first and foremost, the objective is to get the aid in, but as a secondary matter, this could really provoke a diplomatic or political crisis,” Dylan Saba, an attorney at Palestine Legal participating with the Freedom Flotilla, tells Rolling Stone. “We have hundreds of internationals [who could be] either subjected to violent assault or unlawfully kidnapped in international waters and detained by the Israelis.”

Saba, who lives in New York, is one of up to 40 Americans who are planning to travel with the flotilla, according to an organizer. He intends to chronicle the journey in an essay for Harper’s Magazine, part of a broader push to generate media coverage around a mission that could include 100 journalists. Publicity is essential. “We need as much media attention on this as possible, as much eyes on this as possible, for our own protection [and] to raise the stakes of any potential encounter,” Saba says.

The first aid flotilla to Gaza took place in 2008, a year after Israel first imposed its blockade. More, larger flotillas followed. In 2010, Israel attacked one of the aid flotillas, killing 10 people and wounding 30. Ten Israeli soldiers were injured.

Tensions are much higher now — and the need for humanitarian assistance is more severe. Since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 and kidnapping more than 200, Israel has led a brutal war in Gaza while heavily restricting humanitarian aid. More than 34,000 Palestinians have died, millions have been displaced, and the population is at imminent risk of famine.

“We can’t sit by and let it happen,” says Huwaida Arraf, a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen, human rights lawyer, and organizer for the Freedom Flotilla. “People have been marching in the millions around the world, and still our governments are not listening to the people. And so we’re taking that protest to the sea and we’re directly challenging Israel’s closure policy — the siege, the blockade, which are unlawful.”

The Freedom Flotilla will transport food, water, baby formula, diapers, and medicines that do not require refrigeration. The organizers are making no effort to coordinate with Israel. “We say they have no right to decide what kind of aid gets to the Palestinians,” says Arraf.

On Wednesday, after some delays, the activists announced they are planning to launch the flotilla on Friday — that is, if they are allowed to leave.

In 2011, Greece blocked a Gaza aid flotilla from leaving port. The organizers behind this latest voyage believe the United States is working behind the scenes to persuade Turkey not to allow their departure.

With the war in its sixth month, President Joe Biden has faced growing pressure to stop supporting Israel, and pro-Palestine protesters bird-dogging him everywhere he goes. While Biden stepped up his criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after Israel killed a group of aid workers from World Central Kitchen, and has called on Israel to allow in more aid, there has been little overall change in approach to Israel. In fact, there has only been “a slight uptick in aid,” according to NBC News, and Biden just signed legislation granting $26 billion in aid to Israel, including $14 billion in military assistance.

A Biden spokesperson declined to comment on the flotilla and did not respond to questions about whether the administration has been lobbying Turkey to block the voyage.

Turkey cut off ties with Israel after the deadly 2010 flotilla raid killed eight Turkish nationals. The countries re-established diplomatic relations in 2022. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been highly critical of Israel’s war in Gaza, and the country restricted exports to Israel earlier this month.

The Freedom Flotilla’s member organizations include the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), which Israel has labeled a terrorist organization. Israeli newspapers and the country’s allies have been sounding the alarm about the aid flotilla. “The new flotilla could result in catastrophe and should not be allowed,” wrote the Jerusalem Post editorial board.

The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a pro-Israel think tank, has warned that the flotilla “initiative could provoke a military altercation with the Israeli or U.S. navies and undermine Washington’s humanitarian efforts.” The organization wrote that “IHH organized a similar flotilla a decade ago that caused a violent altercation,” and called on the Biden administration to “demand that Turkish authorities refrain from launching the flotilla.”

Arraf was part of the ill-fated 2010 aid flotilla, and she acknowledges that some participants did fight back against the Israeli military. “I wouldn’t have recommended [it], but they came on board shooting,” she says, adding: “Not everyone was trained in what to possibly expect should they board our ships. People were scared.”

This time, Arraf says that the coalition had an application process to ensure activists are vetted and have experience dealing with tense or traumatic issues, and participants were required to take part in a full day of nonviolent training, with simulations of what might happen.

“We told everybody — we can’t guarantee your safety, you saw what happened to us in 2010,” she says. “We’re gonna do everything we can to try to protect everybody.”

Arraf notes she has two young daughters to think about back in Detroit, but she feels an obligation to participate and organize this flotilla. “As much as I sometimes feel like maybe I shouldn’t do this — I’m a mom, my kids need me — I also can’t imagine not doing it, and passing on a world to them with this is allowed to happen,” she says. “Right now it’s Palestine, but we’re fighting for a future where this can never happen again.”

She continues, “I’m grateful to my kids for understanding that. Yesterday, my husband told me my daughter asked, ‘If Mama dies, will it be okay? Will it be okay because she was helping people?’ And it saddens me that she needs to think like that … because we’re protesting a war crime and trying to deliver baby food and diapers to kids who are starving to death.”

Saba, the Palestine Legal attorney, says participating in the flotilla is a “scary thing” to do “given the history of these flotillas and the posture of the Israeli government right now.” Still, he says, “I feel strongly that it’s my duty to do this, and I don’t have any second thoughts about it, especially given the immense sacrifice that Palestinians in Gaza have made for their liberation and the tremendous harm that they’ve suffered.”

Wynd Kaufmyn, an activist from Berkeley traveling with the flotilla, says the participants hope that “there will be enough international eyes on us that Israel will leave us alone, and we get the aid in, and we hope that it’s just the beginning of getting aid in.”

She acknowledges, though, if the flotilla is allowed to depart from Istanbul, participants need to be ready for Israel to “board us, take control of the boat, confiscate everything, deport us, and not treat us very well in the process.”

“We are totally idealistic,” she says. “We’re not being unrealistic.”

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